Sunday, September 22, 2013

Collapsing distinctions

In 1975 the Catholic Church produced a document called Persona Humana dealing with sexual morality. Zippy Catholic has quoted a small passage from it, which I think is profoundly relevant today:
Hence, those many people are in error who today assert that one can find neither in human nature nor in the revealed law any absolute and immutable norm to serve for particular actions other than the one which expresses itself in the general law of charity and respect for human dignity.

What does this mean? It is saying that the command to love one another (the general law of charity) is taken by some people to be the only principle that we have to follow.

It's interesting that this problem was recognised by the Church as long ago as 1975. It seems to me today to be the chief error besetting the Christian churches, including the Catholic Church.

Why is it such a problem? The easy answer is that if you believe that the command to love one another is the only principle that we have to follow, then all other moral principles are dissolved or collapsed. I can go and commit any kind of sin I like, but none of it matters as long as I am oriented to a universal love.

But there's more to it than this. If the only thing we have to consider is a universal love, then we also collapse or dissolve particular forms of reality, such as the distinct ways that we have been created in our nature, the particular forms of relationships that we commit to in life, and the particular goods that we seek to uphold.

A good example of this is the theology of the leader of the American Episcopalians, Katharine Jefferts Schori. She believes that we should love every single person in the same way that we would love our "lover" (her term). So instead of there being a distinct expression of marital love, with its particular qualities, goods and duties, I'm supposed to extend the same love to everyone.

Katharine Jefferts Schori has even taken the "love your neighbour" command (caritas) to collapse distinctions between humans and microbes:
“Microbes are part of us, in a very real sense our intimate neighbors or members, and the task is to learn how to manage the system for better health as a whole and in all its parts,” Jefferts Schori proposed.

“This work is about consciousness of our connection to the whole, and tender care of the other parts of that whole,” Jefferts Schori intoned. “It is simply another form of loving our neighbor as ourselves, for the neighbor is actually part of each one of us.”

I don't believe that a church can survive if it doesn't take man as he really is, in his created nature, in the range and depth of his relationships, in his particular loves and attachments, in his full comprehension of the moral good, in the full range of his experience of the transcendent in life, and in the particular ways that he fulfils his created being.

To collapse or dissolve is the wrong path to follow. Caritas is certainly a core principle of Christianity, but not as practised by a detached or abstracted individual, but by individuals inhabiting a more complex order of being.


  1. We should NOT cede the term love to the other side, because it all depends on what you mean by that term. Bonald has it right:

    "Liberal Churches tend to equate love with compassion, a desire to alleviate suffering and promote happiness for all people. Compassion is a fine, even necessary, thing, but it is not love. Indeed, it is often the supreme virtue in those belief systems that reject love. Compassion is quite compatible with liberalism. It is naturally abstract and universal, since its true object is the pain itself, and not the sufferer who is merely its host. Since pain is more or less the same in everyone, it is natural to extend compassion to all humanity. Also, since suffering and contentment are the only matters of concern, objective standards can seem like obstacles to the merely compassionate man."

  2. More:

    ``When one loves a person, one wills that person’s good. This will often include alleviating suffering and increasing happiness, but it means more than that. A compassionate man might be content to leave his neighbour content in ignorance, sin, and degradation, but not the man who loves. Christ said to love our neighbor as we love ourselves; when we inspect our own hearts, we realize that for ourselves we would prefer honourable suffering to a shameful happiness and a distressing truth to a comfortable lie. At least, we know that this is what we should want, if we truly value ourselves.``

  3. The Biblical meaning of love is a behaviour and not an emotional state. It means to treat others well. It does not mean emotional involvement with all.

  4. Katharine Jefferts Schori has even taken the "love your neighbour" command (caritas) to collapse distinctions between humans and microbes:

    Anyone ever read the 1973 novel The Bridge by D. Keith Mano? It is set in a future run by crazed equalitarian environmentalist/animal-rights nutcases. The government decrees that human murder of microbes can no longer continue:

    "Whereas it has been ascertained irrefutably by the Council's Emergency Committee on Respiration that the process of breathing has and will continue to destroy and maim innumerable forms of microscopic biological life, we of the Council, convened in full, have decided that man in good conscience can no longer permit this wanton destruction of our fellow creatures, whose right to exist is fully as great as ours. It is therefore decreed that men, in spontaneous free will and contrition, voluntarily accede to the termination of their species. It is hoped bretheren, that you will donate your physical bodies to the earth in such a manner that the heinous crimes of murder and pollution committed by our race throughout history may in some small way find redress."